The stage version of The Secret River makes the guilt of Australia’s first colonists shockingly clear, as author Kate Grenville explains       

Words Mark Fisher   

In 2013 it looked as though Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River might never make it out of the rehearsal room. Their attempt to stage Kate Grenville’s Booker-shortlisted novel about Australia’s first convict colonists had been hard work. The novel tells the story of one man’s life from birth to old age, on two different continents, and initially it seemed too difficult to encompass on stage. The creative team was ready to give up on it, but Cate Blanchett, the theatre’s artistic director, kept her faith. She told them to go back and try again.

So when it came to version two they invited Grenville to watch a late rehearsal. She didn’t know what to expect. “I’m getting quite emotional remembering it,” she says. “I was in tears. It was just the most moving thing to see something I had set down from my own imagination that had triggered something quite different, but quite powerful from a different set of imaginations.”

Where many a novelist gets shirty about theatre productions taking liberties with their work, Grenville is delighted with playwright Andrew Bovell’s adaptation precisely because it has not tried to be faithful. Or at least, it is not faithful to the letter of the book, even if it is faithful to its spirit. “The fabulous thing about this play is it sidesteps all the pitfalls of the obvious, the stereotypical, and also the overly heart-on-sleeve,” she says.

Gone are the novel’s Dickensian early scenes where we meet William Thornhill growing up in the slums of London and, catastrophically, supplementing his income as a boatman on the Thames with a spot of thieving. Gone too is much of the section about his arrival in the fledgling port of Sydney, where he arrives on a convict ship and is reunited with his wife Sal.

Instead, Neil Armfield’s production cuts to the chase to depict the young family’s cultivation of a patch of inhospitable Australian land, unaware that the country’s original inhabitants already have a claim on it.

“I didn’t want to preach to the converted. I wanted to get the people who were fundamentally ignorant about our past, as I was when I started the book,” says Grenville, who took inspiration from her own ancestry. “My generation was brought up with a sanitised version of Australian history in which it was terribly sad that the Aboriginal people had been decimated but it was mainly measles and a lack of resilience and it was nobody’s fa

Now we know better. We’ve had to reinvent our history with a much darker cast.”

Where the novel is one man’s interior monologue, the play, which transfers to London’s National Theatre after its run at the Edinburgh International Festival, shows us everyone’s perspective – although only speakers of Dharug will understand what the Aboriginal actors are saying.

“One of the revolutionary things they have done is to make this a play about two families,” says Grenville. “There are equal numbers of white and Aboriginal actors. It’s an amazing moment in the theatre when you realise these people are speaking their own language and we in the audience are not understanding, just exactly the same way the first settlers didn’t understand. I couldn’t do that in the book, for a million reasons, but it’s what makes the play so powerful.”

Fascinated to know how the play will be received in the very country that colonised Australia in the first place, Grenville is overawed by the impact her story has when it takes on theatrical form. “One of the most moving things about the play is watching Aboriginal actors, for whom the story is a trauma in the past and present, and yet they’re prepared to take part in it,” she says. “I find that an act of incredible bravery and large-heartedness. They’re being asked to relive the most shocking trauma.”

Having seen it as many as ten times in Australia, she says the same thing happens at the end of every performance. “There’s a moment of absolute silence, when the audience is so affected that clapping just doesn’t seem appropriate.

WHERE & WHEN

The Secret River, King’s Theatre, 2–11 August, £7.30, from £15 eif.co.uk

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